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‘The Little Book of Hygge’ by Meik Wiking ****

Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well is the fourth title on the Danish phenomenon of hygge which I have read to date.  I adore the whole concept, and thought that snuggling down with this on a Sunday evening when I felt unwell would be rather comforting; it was.9780241283912

Wiking works at the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, an independent think-tank ‘focusing on well-being, happiness and quality of life’, which aims to ‘work towards improving the quality of life of citizens across the world’.  Essentially, Wiking looks into what makes us happy.  In his book, he has written extensively about different happiness surveys, and how hygge contributes to the Danes being consistently voted the happiest nation on earth.

I read one review of The Little Book of Hygge which writes that it adds little to the slew of existing books.  I thought that I would challenge this viewpoint, which I found to be false, by formulating a list of all of the things about hygge that Wiking has taught me.  Here goes…

  1. The literal translation of the Danish for candle, levende lys, means ‘living lights’ (which is just delightful).
  2. 28% of Danes light candles every day.
  3. Only 47% of Danes believe that hygge can be translated into other languages and societies.
  4. The Danes believe that autumn is the most hyggelig season.
  5. Tokka is the word for a large herd of reindeer in Finnish.  (Not necessarily a fact about hygge, I know, but linguistically interesting nonetheless; it has no parallels in other languages).
  6. Sondagshygge is hygge specific to Sundays; it revolves around ‘having a slow day with tea, books, music, blankets and perhaps the occasional walk if things go crazy’.  (My favourite kind of day, no less).
  7. Per head, Danes eat 8.2 kilograms of sweets annually; this is second only to Finland, and twice the European average.
  8. In Danish fashion, a ‘scarf is a must’.
  9. Braised pigs’ cheeks, and ‘twisting bread’, for which there are recipes here, sound really tasty.

The Little Book of Hygge is very soothing, and includes many lists of ways in which hygge can be incorporated into any life.  The illustrations and photographs are a really nice touch, and the whole has been peppered with interesting charts and facts.  The ‘hygge dictionary’ is also lovely, and the structure, which is broken into different chapters following such things as ‘Food and Drink’ and ‘Clothing’, works marvellously.  The idea of making a hygge survival kit is absolutely darling.  In all, I would say that Wiking does add to the concept of hygge, and the books which already exist about it; it would be a lovely addition to any bookshelf, or an incredibly thoughtful gift for a dear friend.

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‘The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial’ by Maggie Nelson ****

I was supposed to be reading established poet and non-fiction author Maggie Nelson’s  The Argonauts for a book club I’m a member of, but unable as I was to find a copy, I plumped for The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial instead.  This piece of extended non-fiction, which deals with the aftermath of her aunt’s unsolved murder in the late sixties, and new evidence pointing to her killer, was first published in 2007.  Of all of Nelson’s books, this was the one which appealed to me the most.

The blurb piqued my interest immediately when browsing for Nelson’s books on my local library catalogue.  It reads: ‘After asking for a lift to her hometown for spring break, Jane Mixer, a first-year law student at the University of Michigan, was brutally murdered in 1969; her body was found the next day, a few miles away from campus.’  Jane was shot twice in the head, and then ‘strangled viciously with a stocking that did not belong to her’.  Nelson, whose aunt was killed before she was born, uses The Red Parts to trace her aunt’s death, as well as the trial which took place thirty-five years afterwards.  Jane’s case was reopened in 2004 ‘after a DNA match identified a new suspect, who would soon be arrested and tried.’9781784705794

‘Resurrecting her interior world during the trial – in all its horror, grief, obsession, recklessness, scepticism and downright confusion – Maggie Nelson has produced a work of profound integrity and, in its subtle indeterminacy, deadly moral precision.’   The Red Parts has been hailed by various critics as ‘remarkable’, ‘Didion-esque’, and a ‘darkly intelligent page-turner’, which gives ‘the sense that the writer is writing for her life’, as well as Jane’s.

Within her book, Nelson is candid from the very beginning.  She writes of the process of putting such a painful familial past down on paper, and how the trial and its evidence impacted upon her, her sister, and her mother, Jane’s elder sister.   In her preface, Nelson calls the book ‘a peculiar, pressurized meditation on time’s relation to violence’.  She goes on to say: ‘One aim I had while writing was to allow the events of the trial, the events of my childhood, the events of Jane’s murder, and the act of writing to share a single spatial and temporal moment.’

Initially, police attributed Jane’s murder to a man who had killed many other young girls in what were collectively called the ‘Michigan Murders’.  The new evidence found, however, attributed her murder to someone else entirely, a retired nurse.   When Nelson sees him on trial, she writes: ‘I feel disoriented too.  Where I imagined I might find the “face of evil,” I am finding the face of Elmer Fudd.’  She goes on to describe the difficulty which she has in coming to terms with what he may have done: ‘I watch the light and I watch his hands and I try to imagine them around the trigger of a gun, I try to imagine them strangling someone.  Strangling Jane.  I know this kind of imagining is useless and awful.  I wonder how I’d feel if I imagined it over and over again and later found out that he didn’t do it.’

The Red Parts is very brave and directly honest; it is as objective as it can be, and whilst emotional at times, it does not read – as one imagines it so easily could have done – as a piece of overblown melodrama on the part of the family.  She talks openly about all of the grief in her life, from her father’s death, to seeing her boyfriend overdose more than once.  The Red Parts is a multilayered and well thought through work, which merges biography and autobiography in a seamless and interesting manner.  Nelson’s writing is engaging from the very beginning, and is sure to appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the likes of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

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Two Reviews: ‘Take Courage’ and ‘Falling Slowly’

9781784740214Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis ****
I am, and always have been, a huge fan of Anne Bronte, and when I first heard about Samantha Ellis’ focused biography of her life, I was rather excited. I found Take Courage absorbing, and quite enjoyed the relatively casual writing style which the biography takes. Ellis’ account is far-reaching, and includes a lot of interesting critique about her prose and poetry, as well as thorough studies of each of her siblings, and her parents. The way in which chapters follow different figures, from Branwell and Emily, to the Brontes’ housekeeper, Tabby, is effective.

Take Courage is well written on the whole, although it did feel a little too colloquial at times. I did, however, like the way in which Ellis added her own personal story alongside Anne’s, giving a more personal dimension to the whole. Take Courage is well thought out and enjoyable, and awfully touching, particularly toward the end.

 

Falling Slowly by Anita Brookner *** 9780375704246
There is a slight detachment at play within Anita Brookner’s Falling Slowly. The plot is rather drawn out, and it did not feel as though there were enough occurrences or character developments here to sustain a novel of this length. Very little happened, even in comparison to other, slower books of Brookner’s. The characters never really came to life; I found them unrealistic, particularly toward the end of the book. The relationships drawn between them too are very bizarre, and not at all what I was expecting. Although Falling Slowly follows similar conventions to some of Brookner’s other books, I did not enjoy it anywhere near as much. Whilst it is not badly written, the dialogue feels awfully dated, and it is perhaps therefore more of a 2.5 star read than a 3.

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One From the Archive: ‘Andree’s War: How One Young Woman Outwitted the Nazis’ by Francelle Bradford White ****

After the German invasion of Paris in June 1940, Andree Griotteray ‘found herself living in an occupied city, forced to work alongside the invaders…  Her younger brother Alain set up his own resistance network to do whatever he could to defy the Nazis.  Andree risked her life to help him’.  Based on diaries written during the 1930s and 1940s and conversations which she held, and written largely as a response to the Alzheimer’s which now holds her in its grip, Andree’s War: How One Young Woman Outwitted the Nazis has been lovingly penned by Andree’s daughter, Francelle Bradford White.  Here, White aims to tell us ‘her mother’s incredible story: the narrow escapes and moments of terror alongside a typical teenager’s concerns about food, fashion and boys’.

White’s account of her mother’s life begins with her being granted the Legion d’honneur in 1995, as a measure of her bravery during the Second World War.  She was also accordingly awarded the Medaille de la Resistance and the Croix de Guerre.  White then goes on to set out the history of her family, and the factors which she believes led her mother and uncle Alain to become leading figures in the realm of the French Resistance movement.  She discusses what life was like for a comfortable and relatively well-off family such as the Griotterays in France’s capital, placing particular emphasis upon the alterations which came ‘as tensions in the run-up to the Second World War’ manifested themselves: ‘Shopping, a choice of reasonably elegant clothes, a choice of books, non-censored press, attending university, things which today are taken for granted and which should have been theirs, were no longer possible’.  Andree’s own perceptions, along with interest in and experiences of certain elements of wartime life, can be seen throughout, from theatre and patriotism, to her colleagues at the Police Headquarters, refugees, and deportations.

Many of the diary entries are copied out exactly as they were written, and White speaks of the care which she has taken in  preserving her mother’s use of idioms and certain patterns in her speech during her own efforts at translation.  For instance, Andree’s entry for the 5th of August 1940 reads simply, ‘It is unbearably hot at the moment.  We are leading the most awful life’.

Throughout, footnotes add often vital historical background to the whole; they are both succinct and well penned.  Some also contain the author’s memories of particular items or incidences – of a marble bust passed down through the family from Andree’s father, for example.  Further background to her mother’s diary entries is given too; White sets the scene and continually asserts her mother’s life and decisions made against the backdrop of war.  Andree’s War is packed with such emotional depth.  On the 23rd of August 1940, for example, Andree writes the following: ‘Life is so sad.  It is impossible for a young French girl to be carefree and happy because the Germans are occupying most of my country.  Maybe it does not upset everyone in the same way, but for me to walk around Paris, my home town, to see Germans travelling around in cars and admiring the sights, is heart-breaking.  I do understand the government’s position in allowing them to march in, not wanting Paris to be bombed and destroyed, but it is very hard’.

Andree’s War holds interest throughout; the whole has been so well written, and the primary sources have been handled with such care.  The book is absolutely fascinating, particularly with regard to the extent as to which the eldest Griotteray siblings aided the Resistance.  Incredible feats of heroics show themselves, and the way in which the past story has been interspersed with more recent events, in which Andree’s efforts were both recognised and rewarded, works marvellously.  Andree’s War is a memorable read, and is certainly a wonderful addition to the canon of World War Two diaries, respectfully written about a young woman who ultimately believed in sacrificing herself and her own safety for the greater good.

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‘The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova’ by Paul Strathern **

With many of us dreaming about foreign shores, it seems on the face of it that The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova offers a myriad of information to the discerning traveller. Strathern outlines in his introduction that he has attempted to describe Venice’s most famous inhabitants ‘against the background of events that over the centuries forged and finally destroyed the most powerful of all Mediterranean cities’.

9781845951924Its premise is fascinating, but sadly it does not always deliver. Its introduction is incredibly short and only covers two printed pages. Whilst it is informative on the whole, there is no real reasoning which Strathern gives for wanting to undertake such a project, which is a shame as such a personal addition would have been a nice touch to the volume. The book has been split into four separate sections – ‘Expansion’, ‘The Imperial Age’, ‘The Long Decline’ and ‘Dissolution and Fall’, and it begins in 1295 with Marco Polo. Strathern has used quotes from additional sources throughout, ranging from the thoughts of Marco Polo and the unnamed ‘man to whom Polo would one day dictate the story of his travels’, to Byzantine Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus and Dante Alighieri.

The historical background of Venice is set out well, and Strathern features early cases of germ warfare, slavery, a dearth of manpower in fields and homes, the doges of Venice, Cretan rebellions and travel in and out of the city. The overriding focus in the book, however, is upon battles, warfare and the use of the Navy. Whilst this is evidently important in terms of Venice as a whole, this aspect feels rather overdone. In rather an ironic consequence, The Spirit of Venice does not present the spirit of the city as well as it could.

Whilst The Spirit of Venice is an interesting volume for the most part, it feels overly academic in its style, and is rather bogged down in small details, some of which do not hold much importance in the grand scheme of things. The writing can feel dense, and at times the reader has to wade through its pages. Sadly it is rather a weighty tome and is probably not the easiest book to cart around with you whilst on your trip, but it is one which can be dipped into beforehand. As far as history books pertaining to Venice go, this is rather interesting at times, but there must be far more accessible tomes ot there, which may even be lightweight enough to take with you on your travels.

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Book Haul: August 2017

I had planned not to buy any books in August; needless to say, that did not quite go to plan, despite my being on holiday for a fortnight!  I purchased two books on my Kindle, received two for review for the first time in what feels like an absolute age, and also bought one for a forthcoming book club read.  That was before I found a wonderful seller on AbeBooks, who had priced almost everything at 78 pence with free delivery; needless to say that I stocked up my shelves!

9780812994865My Kindle books come first, as they were the first which I purchased.  I chose the Collected Works of Willa Cather as there are a couple of her full-length books which I haven’t read to date.  I also bought one of the daily deals, Naoki Higashida‘s autism memoir, The Reason I Jump.  I have read this already, and whilst I found it fascinating in places, it was a little underwhelming in its simplicity and repetitiveness.  The two books which I received for review – Keeping Henry by Nina Bawden, which has just been reissued by Virago, and Stella Duffy‘s chilling The Hidden Room – were both great, and I would highly recommend them.  Full-length reviews for both novels are forthcoming on the blog, so do stay tuned!  My book club has altered of late, and is now running around the idea of geographic locations.  Thus, my choice was a free one, provided it was set in Bosnia.  I chose The Delivery Room by 9781472108685Sylvia Brownrigg, which looks fascinating.  I also ended up ordering a secondhand copy of Catherynne M. Valente‘s Deathless, as I have been seeing so many positive reviews of it of late.

Now, on to my huge AbeBooks haul!  I have very little self-restraint when paperbacks are so heavily discounted, and true to form, I selected over twenty of them.  A few of them are applicable as book club tomes, and others will work for the Around the World in Eighty Books Project, which I am starting in January.  Rather than group these rather diverse books together, I am simply going to type them up in a long list below.

  • The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
  • Diary of an Ordinary Woman by Margaret Forster
  • The Human Stain by Philip Roth
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azer Nafisi
  • The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn
  • Oleander Jacaranda by Penelope Lively
  • Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald
  • The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank by Ellen Feldman
  • Christmas Stories, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell
  • Dogrun by Arthur Nersesian
  • True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies
  • Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
  • Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin
  • The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
  • Cat Stories, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell
  • Treveryan by Angela du Maurier
  • The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
  • War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen
  • The Paper Eater by Liz Jensen
  • My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen
  • Charms for an Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons

9780141188324

In September, I am going on holiday to Florida and the Caribbean for two wonderful weeks.  Whilst I am not planning to buy books, I am going to allow myself a tome or two if they are difficult to get hold of in the UK. This is a reader’s prerogative, surely?

Which of these books have you read?  Which have piqued your interest?  Which books did you buy during August?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950-1962’, edited by Karen V. Kukil *****

Sylvia Plath’s Journals have just been reissued by Faber & Faber.  In this new edition, edited by Karen V. Kukil, the Associate Curator of Special Collections at Smith College,  ‘an exact and complete transcription of the journals kept by Sylvia Plath during the last twelve years of her life’ has been included, and ‘there are no omissions, deletions or corrections of Plath’s words in this edition’. Her journals, says Kukil, ‘are characterized by the vigorous immediacy with which she records her inner thoughts and feelings and the intricacies of her daily life’.  She goes on to explain the way in which, ‘Every effort has been made… to give the reader direct access to Sylvia Plath’s actual words without interruption or interpretation’.

The main body of the diary spans from its beginnings in July 1950 to 1959, and the appendices stretch up to 1962, the year in which Plath committed suicide at the age of thirty.  The entirety is unabridged, and has been taken from twenty three original manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College in Massachusetts.  They document her ‘student years at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge, her marriage to Ted Hughes, and two years of teaching and writing in New England’.

Journals contains a wealth of new material, all of which was sealed by Hughes until February 2013.  The journals have been split into separate sections, each of which spans a different period in the poet’s life.  Photocopies of her journal pages have been included at the start of every one.  These show the progression of her writing, and are really a lovely touch to add to the wonderful whole.  Two sections of glossy photographs can also be found within the book’s pages.  As one would expect with such a bulk of work, the notes section and index are both extensive.

The first journal, dating from when Plath was just eighteen years old, opens with a poem by Louis MacNeice, and two quotes written by Yeats and Joyce respectively.  The first entry which Plath writes reads like an echo for much of her life: ‘I may never be happy, but tonight I am content’.

Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Cantor, Cape Cod, 1952

Throughout her journals, Plath is so warm, full of vivacity, and strikingly original.  In an entry in the first journal, written in August 1950, she writes: ‘I love people.  Everybody.  I love them; I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection.  Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me.  I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person.  But I am not omniscient.  I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have’.

Each and every entry is filled to the brim with musings, philosophy, emotions, questions and answers.  Plath is so very honest, and incredibly witty too.  When speaking about a dentist removing her wisdom teeth, she says: ‘The doctor pinned the bib around my neck; I was just about prepared for him to stick an apple in my mouth and strew sprigs of parsley on my head’.  Some of the entries reflect upon her day, and others are small self-contained essays about a veritable plethora of subjects.  Amongst other things, she touches upon such topics as literature, love, communal living, politics and the notion of democracy, and then burrows into each one of them in turn, providing the reader with her insights into and musings of each.  Some of the vignettes included are so very charming.  The following occurred whilst Plath was looking after a family of three children over the summer of 1950:

“Your hair smells nice, Pinny.” I said, sniffing her freshly washed blonde locks.  “It smells like soap.”
“Does my eye?” she asked, wriggling her warm, nightgowned body on my arms.
“Does your eye what?”
“Smell nice?”
“But why should your eye smell nice?”
“I got soap in it,” she explained.

Plath’s writing, as anyone who has read even a single one of her poems will know, is absolutely beautiful.  Her descriptions particularly are gorgeous: ‘The two lights over the front steps were haloed with a hazy nimbus of mist, and strange insects fluttered up against the screen, fragile, wing-thin and blinded, dazed, numbed by the brilliance’, and ‘The air flowed about me like thick molasses, and the shadows from the moon and street lamp split like schizophrenic blue phantoms, grotesque and faintly repetitious’.  Throughout, she makes the everyday entrancing, and notices the positive and beautiful qualities in everything which her words touch upon, however much we may take the element in question for granted in the modern world.  The scenes which she builds are so vivid.

The importance of Plath’s art is prevalent immediately: ‘Perhaps someday I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated.  But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow’.  Poems have been included throughout, all of them placed into the volume in the order in which they first appear in her journals.  It goes without saying that each and every one is perfect, startling and exquisitely crafted.  At times, she provides a fascinating commentary upon her own writing, beautifully analysing her own finely wrought sentences.

Plath was such an intelligent woman, and throughout she writes with such clarity, even in the earliest journal entries.  She both praises and chastises herself and humankind – for example, writing ‘I think I am worthwhile just because I have optical nerves and can try to put down what they perceive.  What a fool!’  There are hints of the growth of her coming depression too.  She writes in 1950, for example, that ‘I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad’.  Plath also continually muses on life and death and the vast chasm between the two, as well as the very notion of existence: ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay is dead and she will never push the dirt from her tomb and see the apple-scented rain in slanting silver lines, never’, and ‘I loved [Antoine de Saint-]

Sylvia Plath’s high school graduation photograph

Exupery; I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone.  Is that life after death – mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring?’

The Journals of Sylvia Plath is a book to be savoured, and is a wonderful companion to the stunning Letters Home, another Faber & Faber must for any fan of the poet.  Both books are sure to delight without a doubt.  In them, Plath provides us with a window into her world, and her journals particularly are written in such a way that it feels as though we as readers are her closest confidantes.  Nothing is hidden from us, and each and every entry drips with verity.  Even the biggest of her fans will learn swathes from reading this beautiful and important book.

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